§ 3.43 p.m.
§ Mr. Norman Dodds (Erith and Crayford)
Despite the under-currents that appear to be running through the House, my task in opening a debate on consumer protection is made much easier because of agreement on both sides of the House that public concern is increasing and that something drastic must be done to alter the present unsatisfactory situation which allows the public to be fleeced and duped in a most blatant fashion.
The fact that something must be done largely arises from the devastating evidence which has been brought to the House by many of my hon. Friends. I should like to refer to the debate of 20th March, which was opened in brilliant fashion by my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. Willey) and supported by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mr. G. Darling).
The Government's views were expressed in that debate, when the Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade said:There is no question about it that there is increasing public concern about this question of consumer protection.We were greatly heartened when, later in the debate, the Parliamentary Secretary made an announcement on the setting up of a Committee for consumer protection and said:… the Government intend to set up a Committee to consider this whole question.…—[OFFICIAL REPORT. 20th March, 1959; Vol. 602, c. 856.]I should like to underline "this whole question". The hon. Gentleman added:I hope within days or weeks to be able to announce both the terms of reference and the names of the chairmen and the persons who will constitute that Committee."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 20th March. 1959; Vol. 602, c. 856–67.]40 The hon. Gentleman kept that part of his promise, but later developments dashed our hopes, and in view of recent events we are very suspicious and certainly disturbed. When the Parliamentary Secretary spoke in that debate he led us to believe that the Committee would study consumer protection in a much wider and more effective investigation of shopping and trading practices than now seems likely to be the case. We have not suspicious minds, but it seems to some of us at least, from what has happened recently, that it is highly possible that this Committee has been carefully picked and its terms of reference so carefully worded as to prevent a deep and wide investigation of trading practices.
I am bound to tell the Parliamentary Secretary and the Government, therefore, that if they think that this Committee will be of use in the forthcoming General Election as testimony of their concern for the welfare of shoppers, they will have made a profound mistake unless, in today's debate, we have an assurance which will reveal that the Government's intentions are genuine in trying to bring forward some greater protection of the consumer. I should like to deal, first, with the Committee's terms of reference. The only thing that is certain is that they are ambiguous and that if the Committee is to start its work there is great need for the Government to be much more explicit about the meaning of these terms.
Emphasis is laid in the terms of reference on "existing legislation" but, however much one studies them, it is impossible to tell whether the expression…other measures, if any, are desirable…means that the Government are asking the Committee to suggest further protective legislation, or only the possibility of changes in present Acts relating to merchandise marks or the certification of trade marks. Is the Committee to consider or report on changes which are thought necessary relating only to merchandise marks or the certification of trade marks? Do the words "other measures "refer to the whole field of consumer protection, or are they qualified by earlier reference to merchandise marks? Does the Parliamentary Secretary claim that the terms of reference match his declaration that this will be"…a Committee which will investigate 41 the whole problem?" Many people, both inside and outside the House, would like answers to these questions.
Commenting on the membership of the Committee on consumer protection, and what has happened, Reynolds News, in its editorial of 19th July, said this:The Government has set up a Committee on consumer protection. It includes the chairman of a gramophone company, the deputy-chairman of a drapery combine, a director of a shipping company, the clerk to a county council, the wife of a London solicitor. There is one trade unionist. But there is no representative of the oldest and most experienced consumer protection organisation in the country—the Co-operative movement. The Co-ops pioneered fair weight and full measure at a time when adulteration and cheating were standard practices of retail trade. Co-operative standards have been maintained ever since. To ignore this consumer protection movement, and dominate the Committee with representatives of big money is a piece of stupidity—or spite.
§ Mr. William Shepherd (Cheadle)
Is the hon. Gentleman seriously suggesting that this Committee will be weakened by the absence of a Co-operative member? Is it not a fact that the standards of the co-operative society in terms of merchandise and merchandising are the lowest in the community?
§ Mr. Dodds
Is not the hon. Member insulting the general public, which, of its own volition, spends £1,000 million a year at co-operative societies? That takes a lot of explaining. If the hon. Member feels what he has said is so, then he must say why other Government Departments and Conservative Government Departments have seen fit to put on committees of this sort Co-operative representatives. Since the hon. Member is well-known for his spite against the Co-operative movement, I hope that it will be noted in his constituency during the next few months.
Many of us feel—and probably the Parliamentary Secretary will try to remove that doubt—that this is a deliberate slap in the face for the Co-operative movement and conflicts with previous practices. It seems, therefore, difficult to understand how, on this matter, the action of the Government can be justified. I think, also, that the movement should bear in mind that this tendency on the part of the present Government is growing, and that, despite the nice things that are said from time to time in their constituencies by Conservative 42 Members of Parliament, there is a deep-rooted hostility by the Conservative Party to the co-ops. We see this hostility in the Restrictive Trade Practices Bill. We have seen it directed to the various Amendments that we have put down to Finance Bills, and now we see it very clearly in the constitution of the Committee on consumer protection, a Committee which, I submit, needed Co-operative representatives, if any committee did.
The Minister will not claim that the Co-operative movement has no knowledge of, or concern with, consumer problems. I do not think that he will claim either that there is no one in the Co-operative movement who is not big enough to serve on that Committee. In the Women's Guild there are 70,000 women, and there are some wonderful women in public service actively connected with the Women's Guild. Yet it was possible to put a Conservative woman on the Committee.
I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary, if he is not aware of the influence and the part which this movement plays in the life of the nation, will remember that there are 13 million members in Great Britain. That is one in three of the adult population in Britain, and about one-half of the households are associated with it.
Ever since the movement began, its first principles were embodied in consumer protection. In recent years, agitation from co-operative sources has been immense in asking for some protection for consumers. The Co-operative Members in the House have advocated over a good many years the appointment of a Minister of Consumer Welfare, or, at least, a special department of the Board of Trade, with a Minister of State. Was it because of this interest that it was decided not to put a Co-operative person on that Committee? Is it easier for the Committee to get the results that are wanted by not having a co-operative representative on the Committee?
There is no one on that Committee, with one exception, who is known to have shown any public interest or concern in the matters which it will have to deal with. A number of members connected with large private businesses are on the Committee and four of the members of the Committee hold between them 57 directorships, which include 43 Selfridges, Bon Marché, the Decca Gramophone Company, and John Lewis Company, Limited. We make it plain that we do not object to private enterprise being represented on the Committee. We think that it is essential. It has a very big part to play, but so has the biggest consumer organisation in Britain; and we complain because it has been left out.
In the past Governments of all kinds have recognised the public value and influence of the Co-operative movement as a consumers' organisation. As far back as 1919 and 1920, when we had a Standing Committee on Trusts and Investigation of Prices, there was included on the Committee Mr. W. H. Watkin, who, at the time, was chairman of the Co-operative Party, and Sydney Webb. In more recent times the committee with terms of reference closely resembling those of this Committee was the Hodgson Committee on Weights and Measures. The co-ops had two representatives, Mrs. Rosa Pearson of the National Executive of the Co-operative Party, and F. W. Warwick, the then general manager of the Royal Arsenal Co-operative Society, London. In the Metropolitan area alone there are 2½ million members of the Co-operative movement.
Is there not one fit to serve on this Committee? Many have served well on Government committees. Why not on this? There is not on the Committee one public-spirited woman of the Guild movement, but a place has been found for an active woman member of the Conservative Party. I find that at the annual Conference of Conservative Women, in London, in 1954, this lady seconded a resolution which urged the Government not to increase the salaries of Members of Parliament. She said that this wasa piece of Socialist strategy which they will not hesitate to use against us at the next Election, because they are seeking to alienate sections of the community suffering from hardship.I cannot think that she got on very well with that performance, because, obviously, the whole thing fell absolutely flat. We might be told why she is on the Committee and why the Minister could ignore many other women who could make a very useful contribution.
44 The constitution of the Committee, we believe, is a deliberate slap in the face for the Co-operative movement. Why is it that on this Committee co-op representatives have been ignored? I ask the Minister whether he is aware that in connection with the Marketing Board there is a statutory provision under the Agricultural Marketing Acts that the composition of the Board should include members who are specially concerned with the interests of consumers. That was a wise provision.
Therefore, I ask four questions at this stage. First, how long is it estimated the Committee will sit? Secondly, will it sit in public? Thirdly, what restrictions will there be on giving evidence? I am thinking of individuals or those speaking on behalf of organisations. Fourthly, is this a card to be played at the General Election and to be used—because it is likely that the Committee will sit a long time—as an excuse for inactivity by the Board of Trade in looking after the interests of consumers? Are we to be told when questions are asked, both inside and outside Parliament, "That will be referred to the Committee"? I want to know specifically whether the Board of Trade will be on its toes in looking after the interests of consumers even if the Committee is doing its work?
I have no doubt that the Parliamentary Secretary will make a valiant attempt to explain all this away, but I warn him that he is on a sticky wicket. Already we have had explanations from the President of the Board of Trade and, on the two Thursdays when the right hon. Gentleman answered Questions, it seemed to me that, first, he did not know his subject, and, secondly, he did not care whether he answered satisfactorily or not.
I will give an example. When asked why there were no Co-operative movement experts on the Committee, the right hon. Gentleman replied:The Co-operative movement will have every opportunity to put its views before the Committee.How good of the right hon. Gentleman. This is Britain's greatest consumers' movement and we are told that it is to be allowed to put its views before the Committee. That is an insult. Then the 45 right hon. Gentleman said that he could appoint such bodies in two ways:… either by appointing people who are the representatives of particular bodies outside, or by appointing people for their own sake, having regard to their individual experience. It was the second method that I adopted.If that is so, why is there no Co-operative member of the Committee, and why should there be people on it representing Selfridges, Bon Marché, and others? How does the right hon. Gentleman justify that?
Further, in reply to my right hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, South (Mr. H. Morrison) the Minister said:I have gone out of my way not to put on this body a representative of a particular association."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 16th July, 1959; Vol. 148, c. 571–2.]That is what the Parliamentary Secretary will have to defend. Either he must say that the Minister does not know what he is talking about and has dropped yet one more brick—I do not think that he will say that—or he must try to explain it away. The Parliamentary Secretary will have a very difficult job to explain it away. If he is successful in doing so, he will be near the top of the list of those who are trying to make their names in Parliament.
I hope that we shall be given answers to my four questions and I will now raise one or two matters to bring us up to date. The first is advertising. There has been some improvement in three respects as a result of the efforts made by many of my hon. Friends on this side of the House. First, the I.T.A. seems to be doing fairly well as a consequence of some caustic comments from us, which I hope will be kept up. Secondly, there is a form of control of the Newspaper Proprietors Association as a consequence of criticism made here, though its standards often depend upon the amount of business available. Thirdly, there are hundreds of small weekly newspapers and periodicals where the only control is the conscience of the paper and in that respect some dreadful things are still happening.
Would it not be better to have a neutral standing committee, similar to that in the United States of America, the American Federal Trade Commission, to which complaints could be referred and whose decisions should be final? Such a committee, properly established, would 46 receive enough support to make it a success. Would the Parliamentary Secretary tell us whether this has been looked into, or what the Board of Trade has done as a result of our criticisms? The hon. Gentleman must know that the Merchandise Marks Act does not cover exaggerated claims, nor does the Food and Drugs Act. For example, the advertising of detergents is clearly based on gross exaggeration and it would be difficult to deal with that under the Merchandise Marks Act.
I want to say a word or so about bait, or switch, advertising. I understand that as a result of our criticism there has been an inquiry in the Board of Trade and that it has been found that switch advertising, of which we have seen a disgraceful exhibition, is not illegal. If that is so, the Board of Trade should try to devise a method of protection for the consumer. Would this be referred to the Committee? Is it something that the Board of Trade cannot handle? It is thoroughly dishonest.
I will give an example that has not been brought before the House previously. It is an advertisement which is appearing in many newspapers. The advertiser is the Allied Stock Disposal Company, calling itself the largest stock disposal organisation in the Midlands, with a head office at Stephenson Sale Rooms, Birmingham. It makes a "Very Special Announcement":Sale of salvaged carpets from the S.S. "Aire" which sank in the River Humber. Majority of these carpets are now dry and a proportion have been dry-cleaned. To be sold direct to the public at a fraction of actual value!One sale was held in the Grand Hall, Central Halls, Glasgow and is typical of many.
I have a photograph here of the small ship that sank in the Humber. Hon. Members who have noted that the advertisement states that the majority of the carpets are now dry will be interested to know that the ship sank in the harbour on 5th October last year and that the small store of carpets was salvaged between 7th and 12th October. During the hot weather that we have been having for the past few months the carpets could have been wet twenty times over and dried again, yet the firm is still advertising that some of the carpets "are now dry".
47 That type of wording is misleading to the public, it attracts them to the showrooms and, when they get there, they find that the carpets for sale are Belgian cotton carpets that have never seen the Humber or the S.S. "Aire". I ask the Parliamentary Secretary whether this advertisement has been reported to his Department? I shall be surprised if it has not, but if so, what has been done about it? Does he not think that this kind of advertising should be stopped? If the hon. Gentleman does not do something about it, in a few years' time somebody else will be getting up in the House and mentioning that some of the carpets have just dried out.
In the last few minutes of my speech I will raise one or two other points. Many members of the public are deluded by the guarantees they are given but which are not worth the paper they are written on. Such guarantees are used in mock auctions. They are bought at 7s. 6d. a thousand sheets and sometimes they state, for example, that the goods are made of finest Sheffield steel when they are trash. In fact, the guarantees would not stand up in a court of law. Has the Board of Trade looked at the range of guarantees given by unscrupulous people? Is it not a fact that the ordinary man and woman has not sufficient legal knowledge to know that such guarantees would be useless in a court of law, and should not the Board of Trade be playing its part in protecting the consumer? Or is this another practice that will be handed over to the Committee to look at?
Is there any possibility of the Board of Trade devising machinery which can be used by members of the general public when they are displeased or disgusted with articles which they buy and the shopkeeper feels that the customer is wrong? Is there any hope of machinery through which it can be decided whether or not articles are suitable for sale? Is not the Parliamentary Secretary aware that there are many people who need to be protected in this way? There are many shopkeepers who need to be protected from unscrupulous shoppers. There are often cases when both the shopkeeper and the purchaser feel a deep sense of injustice. Is it not possible to have a grouping together of 48 firms for the purpose of providing a testing house, with some assistance from the Government? What has the Board of Trade done about this? What has it to say about it?
I have put my case in a way which I think the circumstances demand. I shall listen with interest to the Parliamentary Secretary trying to give us the satisfaction which we seek. I can give the hon. Gentleman an undertaking that many of us are genuinely deeply concerned about consumer protection, and that if the Government—even the present Government—try to do their job properly, they will get our support. If they do not, then there will be more trouble coming.
§ 4.12 p.m.
§ Mrs. Patricia McLaughlin (Belfast, West)
The subject under discussion is one which interests all of us very much indeed. Having listened to the hon. Member for Erith and Crayford (Mr. Dodds), I can assure him that people throughout the country have a great interest in the matter. There are several points which I consider are of great importance, and to which I wish to refer briefly.
First, the composition of the Committee has been referred to in very strong terms. If we are to have representatives of certain retail bodies, where are we to stop? If we are to have a representative of the Co-operative movement, why not a representative of Marks & Spencer? If we are to have a representative of Marks & Spencer, why should not we have representatives of many other large firms? In the end we should produce a large unwieldy Committee unable to come to neat and tidy findings after close consultation.
I think that we have been extremely hurried in our consideration of the persons who will comprise the Committee. In their individual value they are worth a great deal in the subject in which they have been chosen to work. What is wrong with having housewives on the Committee? We spend a great deal of time in the House saying that housewives must be protected. Surely the housewives on the Committee will be perfectly able to put the housewife's case satisfactorily. The variety of persons appointed to the Committee gives us a fair cross-section of the community that we want to serve.
49 In referring to the terms of reference, the hon. Member used the expression "if any" in the wrong place. The terms of reference read:To consider and report what changes, if any, in the law and what other measures are desirable for the further protection of the consuming public.I should like to see how the Committee works and give it considerable support before making sweeping statements about the impossibility of its achieving anything. We are working today in a country where, of course, the consumer needs protection as far as possible, but where, I believe, we must be careful not to give the impression that we are all on one side of the fence against the manufacturer, the retailer and the wholesaler, because we are not. We hear all too often about the people who are wrong. We have not heard sufficient about the very good results achieved time and time again by manufacturers who have a strong sense of what is required and give a very fair return for money. It is too easy for us to be swept away when discussing this matter purely from one point of view, and we must be careful on that score.
There is something that I particularly want to stress. Both the Consumer Council and the Consumers' Association have done yeoman service in providing the discriminating buyer with a means of finding out what is worth while. We should use these more. It would be a great help if we ourselves encouraged people to support these bodies which are making it possible for a buyer to choose the best value for money at all levels. In discussing this subject we cannot say that too often. Whether one is buying a large item which is capital goods, a pair of socks or whatever it may be, at whatever price and at whatever level one is buying it, there must be a fair return for the money, and it must not be something which would lead the public into believing that it is something entirely different.
I do not believe that we can get that type of result by having a mammoth organisation, a large unwieldy committee, considering it. It has to be done by a small tidy committee, consisting of persons who can sit as a united group concerned only with getting the best answer for the public. If we are to have representatives of organisations from all 50 over the country we shall not have the type of committee which can produce the answer. I feel distressed when people look at the group and say "impossible" or "not satisfactory". How shall we, in the long run, obtain satisfactory work if we do not give these people a mandate to get on with studying the job for which the Committee has been set up?
I hope that in the time to come we shall be very strong about this and shall ensure that every piece of information possible is put before the Committee so that it can give the public the best answer. Do not let us say, "Because they are housewives and do not represent a huge organisation, they cannot do the job", or, "Because they are persons from a specialist branch they have nothing to give". That would be taking much too sweeping a view.
We in this country do not want to be told what we must buy. We want to leave a certain amount of choice to the buyers. It is worth bearing in mind that members of the public are not so easily "gulled" as some people think. We have many firms which are doing a very good job, and in this respect other countries look at us with admiration. Therefore, let us be careful not to give the impression that we are up against every single person who is trying to hoodwink the consumer. The consumer needs information, choice and advice. I believe that in the long run that adds up to the right kind of protection that the consumer needs. We must be careful, however, that in endeavouring to protect the consumer we do not take away from him the freedom of choice which is so essential in a free economy. We must also be extremely careful not to curtail the quality and variety of goods which manufacturers are encouraged to make.
We hear a great deal today about people who put less in a packet and a misleading description on the outside. The whole of life today has become an advertising campaign. It is not just for consumer goods. It is for everything, for our way of life, our policy, our quickness to get ahead in nuclear work, and so on. It is not merely a matter of protecting the consumer from an advertiser. It is a matter of seeing that a Committee such as the one we are discussing has an opportunity to discover 51 the flaws and snags—there must be some, naturally, or there would not be a demand for such a Committee—and create a wise body of opinion which can advise us about the best way to protect the consumer in the future, not a mammoth concern which will put us all together and say, "These are the things you must have, because they are the best value."
What is the best value for one person may not be the best value for another. Let us keep our heads and make certain that consumer protection does not mean lack of consumer information or choice.
§ 4.19 p.m.
§ Miss Elaine Burton (Coventry, South)
The hon. Lady the Member for Belfast, West (Mrs. McLaughlin) has been putting up her own Aunt Sallies and knocking them down. My hon. Friends and I have always been at great pains to stress that we do not by any means think that all or the majority of traders are disreputable. We think that most of them are entirely reputable. What we have been fighting against, in spite of the Government, ever since the end of 1951 has been the trader who produces shoddy goods or seeks to take advantage of the public.
It is within the recollection of everybody in this Chamber today, and certainly within the recollection of the Board of Trade, that since the end of 1951 we on this side of the House have continually pressed the Government to do something about goods which are not value for money. Even the Parliamentary Secretary will hardly be able to say that during the past eight years his Department has been forthcoming in the Answers that it has given.
We always say that anything is possible in politics. It seems the purest fantasy that this Government should set up a committee to consider consumer protection. It is something which my hon. Friends and I would have believed to be quite impossible. I do not wish to be cynical, but the House and the public should look at the reasons which lie behind the Board of Trade's action. I find myself quite unable to believe that the Committee has been set up because the Board of Trade wanted to help the consumer, and I propose to give my reasons.
52 I do not know whether the Parliamentary Secretary can help, but on 23rd July I asked the President of the Board of Trade whether he would make public the letter of invitation sent out to the people forming this Committee. I told the right hon. Gentleman that I had been led to understand that the letter was more expansive over the terms of reference than had been given to us in the House. As I think the Parliamentary Secretary will know, his right hon. Friend said:I will consider putting the letter in the OFFICIAL REPORT.—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Thursday, 23rd July, 1959; Vol. 609, c. 1491.]When I discussed with someone why the letter was more expansive than the President of the Board of Trade had been in the House, I was informed that some members of the Cabinet had taken strong exception to this Committee being set up at all and that it was only by making the terms of reference so brief that the President of the Board of Trade was able to get them through. The Parliamentary Secretary may not be able to comment on Cabinet proceedings, but it would be a great help if we saw the letter.
I always feel that it is rather difficult, particularly as most of us in the House have a great interest in this matter, to say that when a committee is set up it is not a good committee. However, in common with my hon. Friends, I have for a number of years worked on consumer protection, and I am alarmed when I look at the list of names and find that I do not know most of the people who have been appointed to the Committee. They are not those of whom I have any knowledge in this field of consumer protection; and that is what worries me.
I should have thought that hon. Members on both sides of the House would have known some of these people. Whether we thought they were good or bad selections is beside the point. The people appointed to such a Committee should be knowledgeable of consumer matters. I suggest to the hon. Lady the Member for Belfast, West that it is not enough to say that there are housewives on the Committee. There is nothing wrong with housewives at all, but I am not dealing with that. I am speaking of knowledge of consumer protection.
I entirely support the excellent speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Erith 53 and Crayford (Mr. Dodds). The Cooperative movement has every right to grouse, object or protest—I do not know which is the right term. I agree with the President of the Board of Trade—which is a pleasant change—that people representing individual associations ought not to be on the Committee. That is quite right. We realise that the Consumers' Association Limited and the British Standards Institution will have every opportunity to give evidence, but I do not think that the Co-operative movement comes in the category of individual associations.
My hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Crayford raised the point that we must guard against undue delay. If we ask the Parliamentary Secretary how long the Committee will take to make its report he may find himself in some difficulty in giving an answer, but I am sure that you, Mr. Speaker, and certainly this House, must feel rather dubious about this when one remembers what happened about children's shoes. I am not going into that in detail today, but the question of children's shoes has been raised in this House for nearly six years. That is one single item and one standard of merchandise. Now, in the sixth year of the campaign, we have made a tiny indent. I hope that we shall make a bigger one, but if it takes six years to make progress on one item the Parliamentary Secretary can understand us viewing with some trepidation the thought of a Committee inquiry into more than one item.
I now want to deal with certificates of quality. I said that I did not believe that the Board of Trade was greatly concerned about consumers in putting up this Committee. From the Answers that have been given to us from time to time in this House there is no evidence that the Board of Trade is anxious to pursue this matter. When I asked about certificates of quality and said that some certificates are just not worth the paper they are written on, the Parliamentary Secretary gave me an answer which was typical. He said:I agree that these seals of quality… are commonly issued without any indication of the tests which have been applied in granting them. The Board of Trade endorses the view that it would be in the interest of shoppers that the tests should be made known."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Thursday, 19th March, 1959; Vol. 602. c. 604.]54 But we never got any further. Another time the Parliamentary Secretary told me that some were approved and some were not; that some could be actionable under the Merchandise Marks Acts and some could not. I did not feel that that got us a lot further, and doubtless the Parliamentary Secretary feels the same.
I come now to the attitude of the Board of Trade and how it is bringing the law into contempt. Traders and the public generally now feel this to be so. I blame the Board of Trade. From 1952 to 1955 we on this side of the House—and let us be clear that it was only this side—brought forward many cases. The Parliamentary Secretary was not then in his present office, but he will probably know about them by his connection with the work that he was then doing. The Board of Trade could not be persuaded to take these cases up, and poured scorn on the organisations doing the job. The organisation I am referring to was the Retail Trading Standards Association, which did a first-class job. Lord Cones-ford, now in another place, said at the time that he had never heard of it.
After the General Election of 1955 the Board of Trade became aware of public opinion. It completely reversed its attitude and began to seek cases from the various organisations. What is alarming me is that recently the Board of Trade seems to have fallen back into its old ways of refusing to make use of existing legislation.
I do not propose to weary the House, but we have had many arguments about the Advertisements (Hire Purchase) Act, 1957. The Parliamentary Secretary will remember that he and the President of the Board of Trade and I battled for about two months over this. I have not got any further, but I live in hope. We have a Committee today so one never knows.
The Parliamentary Secretary must know, because reputable organisations have told him, that dishonest traders are driving a coach and horse through the Advertisements (Hire Purchase) Act, 1957. Representations have been made to his Ministry, but the Ministry has not felt able to accept one single case. I have brought this matter up in the House and we have gradually weeded out the fact that the Ministry looked at 60 cases. We found that nine might be actionable 55 Then we found that in three there might have been a prima facie breach of the law. Then we came to the end only to find that on those three no action is to be taken at all. I wonder whether the Parliamentary Secretary can see the matter from the point of view of the shopper. What happens to the customer who has been defrauded? I have never heard a member of this Government, speaking at the Dispatch Box, show any concern for the shopper.
It is a long time since 1948, when I saw how Consumers' Union worked in the United States. I thought then, as I said in the House in 1950, that it was infinitely better than anything we then had here, but that it fell down on its middle-class membership. My feeling today is that both the organisations which have been set up in this country are having the same problem. I salute the work that they are doing, but they are not getting to the general public. Neither has made an impression on working-class people, nor upon the working-class market. I take the view that we shall never get anywhere in this matter until this service is made a public one, and not one provided by subscription.
We should set up an organisation—and I do not mind if it takes in both the existing ones—which makes its reports on radio and television. I regret to say that until that is done these efforts will not get over to the general public. I hope that the Committee will look into these matters carefully.
§ 4.32 p.m.
§ Mr. Graham Page (Crosby)
I must declare an interest at once in this matter, since I hold—amongst other interests—a directorship of an advertising agency. It has always seemed an anomaly to me that hon. Members opposite should pose as protectors of the consumer. Individually, I am sure that they are quite sincere, but where is their general policy leading them? Where is there any consumer protection in the brave new world of nationalised goods which, I understand, their party envisages?
I have never seen any consumer protection involved in the 7d. cup of dishwash served in the nationalised British Railways restaurants as coffee, or in the nationalised slate that was sold as coal. When we reach the stage of the 56 nationalised industries there is no sort of consumer protection, and it is anomalous for hon. Members opposite to pose as protectors of the consumer. Not only do they put forward a policy of extending nationalised monopolies, but they intend to extend them into retail businesses.
If the party opposite is returned to power, I understand that it will nationalise many of the large stores.
§ Mr. Page
Hon. Members opposite may laugh, but this policy appears in the pamphlets issued by the Labour Party. I can only ask hon. Members opposite to read their own literature. It describes companies having a capital of £3½ million as large businesses or large firms and it goes on to say that the large firms must be Government-controlled.
§ Mr. Darling
We all know the references which the hon. Member is deliberately misquoting. We should like him to quote the words of these pamphlets before he proceeds any further.
§ Mr. Douglas Jay (Battersea, North)
As the hon. Member has made these statements, if he expects us to take seriously anything else that he says today will he tell us to which pamphlet he is referring?
§ Mr. Page
Does the right hon. Member deny that in pamphlets issued by his party large businesses are described as those with a capital of £34½ million? That is a fact. Those pamphlets go on to say that the large firms or businesses should have a measure of Government control. [HON. MEMBERS: "Ah."] That is what I said.
§ Mr. Page
I certainly do not intend to withdraw what I have said. I cannot recollect the names of the 13 pamphlets which the party opposite has issued. I recollect the name of the rather glossy one. It was called, "The Future Labour Offers You". The words "Government control" are used in that in relation to the large firms. I was endeavouring to say that there are retail stores with a capital of that size, and that I therefore presumed that hon. Members opposite intend to put Government control on such stores.
§ Mr. Page
I certainly will not withdraw. Hon. Members opposite accuse me of making false statements, but they are not false; they are quite true.
On the specific subject of consumer protection, I can quote from the document I have in my hand, which was issued by the party opposite. It is called "Plan for Progress", and in it we see the policy laid down for consumer protection. 58 We see that further controls are to be applied. Since I have the document here I will quote from it. It says:But clearly there are certain situations in which price control and measures of reorganisation may well have to be introduced—where supplies have run short, where distribution economies need to be enforced and where supplies are controlled by monopoly or quasi-monopoly concerns.Does that apply to nationalised concerns as well? I am glad that hon. Members opposite agree that that is their intention.
Although there is a threat to take over certain large retail stores by Government control, there is no threat to take over the co-operative societies.
§ Mr. Page
In connection with the cooperative societies, there is a further anomaly arising out of attacks on advertising, such as the hon. Member for Erith and Crayford (Mr. Dodds) made. Hon. Members opposite have frequently attacked the sort of advertising which puts toys in cereal packets coupons with detergents, and even sticks 3d. pieces on to toothpaste cartons. But why are the co-operative societies so popular? If hon. Members opposite believe that it is because of their efficiency they deceive themselves. The popularity is caused by the "divi". What is the difference between the co-op "divi" and the detergent coupon? It is extremely difficult to see any difference, from the point of view of attracting the customer.
§ Sir Leslie Plummer (Deptford)
Can the hon. Member tell us when it was that attacks were made in the House on these bonuses, toys, and "give-aways" in packets of cereals and detergents?
§ Mr. Page
In previous debates on the subject of consumer protection, and in a Friday debate on advertising. The hon. Member may not have been here, but I am sure that other hon. Members will recollect the occasions. One understands from the remarks made in the opening speech that the reason for this debate is connected with the fact that there is no member of the Co-operative movement on the Committee which the Government have set up in connection with consumer protection.
59 I would rather take as a reason the very first line in the Retail Trading-Standards Association Bulletin of April, 1959, which states:The question of consumer protection has a way of entering the political arena around election time.
§ Mr. Page
Hon. Members opposite chose the subject of today's debate.
While I have this Bulletin in my hand may I make a further quotation which appears only a few lines lower than the other one? Under the heading, "Consumer protection" it says:We believe that never before in the history of this country has there been so great a choice of so many goods at such differing price ranges in so many retail shops. The consumer, to put it in everyday language, has never had it so good.This is from the Retail Trading-Standards Association, which, I understand, hon. Members opposite support to a great extent.
The Bulletin goes on:We believe that the vast majority of retail customers are satisfied with the goods they buy and show a sense of proportion when those goods fail as the result of fair wear and tear.There is much in this article that is of great interest. It advocates an independent council, as did the hon. Lady the Member for Coventry, South (Miss Burton) in her speech. The Retail Trading-Standards Association would wish it to be independent entirely of Government sponsorship, but it sets out points which such an independent council might consider it a duty to investigate… to decide how and why the generally accepted principles of advertising were being abused in individual instances…I think that that puts the question of advertising in a better perspective than it is put on occasions by hon. Members opposite. It recognises that there are generally accepted principles and that it is only in individual instances that advertising is abused. It goes on to say as another point which such an independent council might consider, that…it might instil, perhaps, a trifle more life into those Government Departments responsible for ensuring that these Acts of Parliament are respected.The reference is to the Merchandise Marks Acts, and so on.
60 I am not sure whether I should go the whole way with that. I am doubtful whether much advantage is gained by giving increased powers to Government Departments and local authorities to prosecute, as indeed is advocated again in "Plan for Progress", issued by the Labour Party. I should have thought it far better to leave prosecutions to the police, or for the Director of Public Prosecutions to decide when the evidence is sufficient for a prosecution, rather than to increase what the public can only regard as the "snooping" powers of Government Departments and local authorities. Finally, the Bulletin suggests… a bold and imaginative decision upon the question of quality labels…I have again read through the previous debates on consumer production, and when reading the speeches of some hon. Members opposite one feels that nobody outside this House pays any attention at all to the standard of goods which are sold. I should like some hon. Members to come to my constituency and inspect the laboratory and testing station of a big mail order business and the very elaborate precautions which are taken before any goods are sold to its customers. Cloth is tested from every point of view. Toy motor cars are tested for days on end to see whether they will stand up to wear. There are severe tests on furniture, and so on. I am sure that many big distributors do exactly the same thing.
§ Mr. Page
Yes, at the manufacturing level as well, but I am now speaking about when goods come from the manufacturers to the retailers. Many big retailers carry out similar tests. The laboratory I am thinking of is staffed by highly paid scientists and it is a most elaborate concern.
In addition to that sort of testing by distributors there are the associations which have been mentioned, the Consumers' Association and the others, but may I, with respect, issue a warning, or make a plea, to such associations? They have great power and I hope that they will use that power responsibly. We do not want a witch hunt against manufacturers.
§ Mr. Shepherd
Surely my hon. Friend is not suggesting that either of these organisations has hitherto been guilty of any such conduct. I hope that he will make that very clear.
§ Mr. Page
I do not think so, but they may well be led into a witch hunt of manufacturers by remarks from hon. Members opposite.
Indeed, there was the case in which a number of learned medical gentlemen said that a firm manufacturing a toothpaste was making fraudulent statements. When required by the Board of Trade to substantiate that allegation on oath, they refused to do so. Those sort of attacks are very easy to make and cause great damage not only to our export trade, but to manufacturers who have installed expensive machinery and employ skilled and unskilled men and then have their trade attacked in that way.
§ Miss Burton
Surely, as a member of the advertising profession, the hon. Member is aware that that self-same advertisement for toothpaste, regarding which the President of the Board of Trade was unable to prosecute, is now not accepted by television because the Medical Research Council committee which deals with advertisements for the I.T.A. found that the objection was substantiated and that the statement was fraudulent, although the President of the Board of Trade could not prosecute?
§ Mr. Page
This comes from a television interview given by Miss Marghanita Laski. I have before me the transcript of the interview. The question which was asked of her was this:In the last few years, for instance, how many specific examples have there been where advertisers have been proved inaccurate, and forced to withdraw or moderate their claims?Her answer was:There have been instances. But you are talking about straight lying, and where there is straight lying there are prosecutions. I am much more concerned with crooked lying"—[Laughter.] I do not know what she meant by the difference between straight lying and crooked lying—suggesting something that if your child said it to you, you would tell it to wash its mouth out with carbolic. Let me give you some instances. There is a sea-sick remedy at the moment which says that it is twice as effective as any other. Wouldn't you like to see the tests you do before you find that one sea-sick remedy is more effective than any other?The interviewer, quite rightly, said:Not at sea; I wouldn't.That was in 1959, and, in fact, this particular sea-sickness remedy, to which she referred, is the only one which uses that particular drug hyoscine, and tests had been carried out three years before which showed conclusively that this remedy was twice as effective as any other. I have before me the report on these tests. [Laughter.] Hon. Members laugh, but the figures are quite impressive. For this particular drug, the protection from vomiting and nausea was 82 per cent., and the nearest to that in the case of any other drug was 39 per cent., and, therefore, this was twice as effective.
§ Mr. Frederick Willey (Sunderland, North)
What did the others claim? Will the hon. Gentleman tell the House what were the claims made by the other manufacturers?
§ Mr. Page
The hon. Gentleman defeats me there, because I cannot possibly say. I am dealing with this particular case which, in public and with wide publicity on television, was said to be "crooked lying", when, in fact, the 63 claim it made was perfectly true. It had been tested by a committee of the Medical Research Council three years before, when the claim was found to be perfectly correct.
That is the sort of complaint which is made so frequently against advertisers without proper knowledge of any tests that may have been carried out. All I am asking is that if we set up any committee it will give as much publicity to those manufacturers who have been vindicated by tests as it would feel to be its public duty to do in the case of those in respect of which complaints have been well-founded.
§ 4.53 p.m.
§ Mr. George Darling (Sheffield, Hillsborough)
I find it hard to believe that the hon. Member for Crosby (Mr. Page) is quite so naive as he appears to be from his speeches. Quite honestly, I have never heard such a collection of nonsense as we had from him in his opening remarks. Although we have said, quite rightly, I think, that the large industrial organisations in this country should prove to the community that they are acting and behaving in the public interest, we have never laid down any system of Government control or ever proposed to do so.
A Committee is now being set up to suggest measures that might lead to public control of certain retailing operations. If the Committee suggests that it is in the public interest that retailers and manufacturers should do certain things, which is a measure of public control, I am hoping that the hon. Member for Crosby will not oppose his own Government if he is asked to support such proposals. That is precisely what we ourselves propose—that these measures, if they are needed in the public interest, should be taken. That is what is meant by Government control. I hope that if the hon. Member for Crosby is here after the next General Election, he will get into the habit of making accurate quotations, instead of giving his own versions, which, in this case, were completely misleading.
I could take up the hon. Gentleman's point about the 7d. cup of railway coffee, but I am sure that the House is aware that we have had a difficult job to get rid of all the past arrangements and 64 attitudes that existed in the railway service. I am afraid that it will be some time before we get rid of all the past evidences of private enterprise and the lack of efficient consumer services, with which the railways were inflicted in days gone by.
There is only one further point that I would take up out of the speech of the hon. Member for Crosby, and that is in regard to the Co-operative society dividend.
§ Mr. George Lawson (Motherwell)
I am sorry to interrupt my hon. Friend, but it seems to me that he is allowing to pass the suggestion that very poor food is being served on the railways. That is not my view, and it is not my experience. I should like to meet that point, because excellent meals are now being served.
§ Mr. Darling
I thought that, though perhaps too briefly, I was trying to make that point myself. Under the new system, the Transport Commission is introducing new dining cars, new cafeterias and so on, though not, from our point of view, quite quickly enough, although there has been a general all-round improvement as well.
The point I want to make briefly is about the Co-op dividend on purchases and the give-away inducements that the hon. Member was talking about. There is a tremendous difference. A dividend on purchases is a trading rebate, organised and worked out, with the members knowing all the time what it is. They know where the profits come from and how they are being distributed, but nobody among the general public knows what are the economies or what is the financial make-up of free gifts. Obviously, from the point of view of an ordinary shopkeeper, if one can put a 6d. in a packet of goods, the price of the packet could be reduced, instead of resorting to this kind of arrangement in order to get sales. The dividend on the purchases of goods is the best way to deal with profits, though I am not altogether certain that other methods are quite so honest.
The hon. Lady the Member for Belfast, West (Mrs. McLaughlin) seemed to get very mixed up about the reasons for our complaints against this Committee. Of course, the Government, in 65 setting up a Committee in this very wide field—it is the widest field of all—realises that everybody is a consumer, and that the services available to the consumer cover everything—foodstuffs, clothing, transport passenger services—in fact, everything one can think of. This Committee is likely to be restricted in its terms of reference to retail trade and services, but that in itself is a very wide field. I agree with the hon. Lady that a Committee set up to inquire into this wide field cannot be completely representative, and, in fact, the President of the Board of Trade, when he was trying to answer Questions on the composition of the Committee, said… there is an embarrassing number of interests in this country connected with consumer purchases…"—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 9th July, 1959; Vol. 608, c. 1560.]and, therefore, the Committee had to be selective. What we are complaining of is that the biggest of the consumer organisations is selected to be left out, and a lot of people, I think quite rightly, criticise the Committee on the ground of selectivity.
The hon. Lady defends housewives being on the Committee, and as my hon. Friend has indicated, so do we. We are all in favour of housewives being on the Committee, but what we cannot understand is why working-class housewives are not, apparently, considered by the Government to include anybody intelligent enough to be on a Committee of this kind. When we think of all the organisations to which working-class housewives belong, women's guilds, townswomen's guilds, trade union branches and so on, and of all the work they do in local government, we find this kind of snob attitude rather irritating.
My hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Crayford (Mr. Dodds), who opened the debate with a brilliant speech, said that he was heartened to hear the Parliamentary Secretary say, at the end of one of our Friday afternoon debates upon this subject, that there was to be a committee set up to go into the whole problem of consumer protection. He got the impression that the hon. Gentleman was suggesting that this would be a first-class committee, but I can tell my hon. Friend that I was not impressed in that way. I know the Parliamentary Secretary better than he does. I thought this was going to be another "cover up", 66 and of course it is. Unless we can get the Committee to work in the way we want it to work, I am afraid there will be some play on the first letter of the chairman's name and it will become known as the "Baloney Committee".
When the President of the Board of Trade was trying to answer questions put to him by my hon. Friends, he pointed out that there were many people connected with retail trade who were not represented on the Committee. He went on to try to express the view that the members of the Committee were not there in a representative capacity. I should like to draw his attention to the position of Mr. John Ramage, for whom I have a tremendous regard. I think he is a first-class person who will do a first-class job, but he is a director of a trade association. As a matter of principle, I wonder if it is right to put directors of trade associations into a position in which they have to take decisions on a Committee which may not be accepted generally by the associations to which they belong. We put them in a very difficult situation. Unless we make it perfectly clear that this is not a representative Committee, it may lead to difficulties. As we see it, it is loaded with private interests. There is no question about that.
There is one private interest with which I am particularly concerned in this matter. As the Parliamentary Secretary probably knows, the gramophone companies for years have refused to supply gramophone records to cooperative societies except under terms and conditions which the societies find unacceptable. Will it be possible for the Co-operative movement to raise before the Committee questions of the conditions under which articles are sold by manufacturers to co-operative societies? If that will be possible, it seems strange to have on the Committee a representative of a trading association which in the past has adopted these methods against co-operative societies, and, when the Committee will be sitting in judgment on that kind of thing, to have no representative of the cooperative societies there to balance his view. The absence of a Co-operative representative on this Committee is evidence of political ineptitude. Just one Co-operative member would have avoided all this trouble and criticism.
67 I agree with the hon. Lady the Member for Belfast, West that one of the functions, so to speak, one of the purposes of the kind of consumer protection we want, is to protect the good manufacturer and the good retailer from the person who is not so honest and not so reliable in his trading methods, and to see that he does not exploit either the manufacturer or the consumer. As the Parliamentary Secretary probably knows, such bodies as the Branded Textiles Group have been trying to consider this problem and to find ways and means of dealing with it. We want to work for some kind of informative labelling which can give the purchaser a clear idea of what he is buying and prevent the manufacturer of shoddy goods from putting over his stuff as stuff of first-class quality.
I do not want to go into details about these matters, which are matters for the Committee, but I want to make clear to the hon. Lady that we are looking to the Committee to help us to get this kind of quality marking. Obviously, we cannot do it by grades one, two and three—
§ Mrs. McLaughlin
Surely at the moment we have a certain grading in the kite mark produced by B.S.I. and that is becoming better known. That is something we should recognise. Very good work is being done and it should be developed. We already have methods of getting these grades known.
§ Mr. Darling
I do not share the view of the hon. Lady about the efficacy of the kite mark. That does not seem to be the answer. We need informative labelling telling people what the stuff is made of and what its performance will be, particularly in textiles.
At the same time, there are wider issues of consumer protection which have to be borne in mind. For instance, I should like to see followed up the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, South (Miss Burton), and referred to by the hon. Member for Crosby, of how we are to deal with a manufacturer or retailer who obviously is breaking the law. We do not want massive prosecutions, but how can that person be brought to heel? I believe there are ways of doing it without the massive prosecutions the hon. Member for Crosby had in mind. A clue 68 to that was given in speeches made by hon. Members opposite when we were considering setting up the Restrictive Practices Court.
If we establish a body of law traders will be influenced towards keeping within the law if they know that they will be prosecuted if they do not do so. That is the line we have to work on to make sure that they keep to the markings and regulations which have behind them the force of law. We should make sure that we have the right regulations and then make it clear that anyone who offends will be prosecuted. That would have a salutary effect over a wide field in which the consumer is now exploited by retailers who know full well that they will not be prosecuted whatever they do.
We have to consider problems of consumer protection in a much wider aspect than they have been considered so far. Some of us on this side of the House think that all the consumer protection services in the different Government Departments should be brought together in one department of the Board of Trade. Although that should be looked at, there is also foreign experience which is well worth considering, particularly experience in Scandinavia, where the idea of a Ministry looking after the interests of consumers has come into operation. Those developments have come out of co-operative pressure and co-operative thinking and ideas in the countries concerned.
It is to be hoped that the Committee that has been set up as a piece of electoral window-dressing will be forced by public pressure to take evidence in public and will be compelled to listen to all kinds of ideas and suggestions, particularly those which come from the organisation which could have done a better job, not only in giving evidence, if it had been represented on the Committee.
§ 5.8 p.m.
§ The Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade (Mr. John Rodgers)
First I wish to thank the hon. Member for Erith and Crayford (Mr. Dodds) for his characteristic courtesy in sending me a letter giving some of the points he wished to raise and some of the questions he wanted answering. Unfortunately, the letter did not arrive 69 until after lunch, but I think that I can answer most of the questions he has asked. I certainly agree with what he said—in his sincere, if a little vehement, speech—about the growing interest in this question of consumer protection. One sees it, not only in this House at Question Time, but in the public Press and in discussions in various bodies throughout the country. From these discussions it is obvious that there are varying views about how best to protect the consumer. In fact, there is no field where there are more divergent views—I might say more diametrically opposed views—than in how best to protect consumer interests.
We have heard today criticisms from the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mr. Darling), as well as from the hon. Member for Erith and Crayford, about the composition of the Committee, and I hope to deal with that matter in due course. I certainly believe that the hon. Gentleman's strictures were based on a complete misconception of the Committee and of its terms of reference. The appointment of the Committee and the work it is to do are, I am sure it is generally agreed, matters of great national importance. If it is not to be wrecked and wasted, it is essential that from the start everyone should clearly understand what the Committee is for and what it is not for, and that confidence in its work and eventually in its report should be complete.
It is for this reason that I am extremely grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me this opportunity of trying to clear away some of the misconceptions which have arisen as to why we have appointed particular people to the Committee and also as to its terms of reference. The job is vital and it is a very difficult one, as all hon. Members to date on both sides have admitted. It is concerned with the consumer who, as the right hon. Member for Lewisham, South (Mr. H. Morrison) once said, is "everybody". It is very difficult to find someone who can represent everybody. I spent twenty-five years in market research finding out what the consumer wants, what his preferences are, and the like, but I do not think that even after that experience I could stand at the Dispatch Box and speak as an expert on what he wants or does not want.
70 The work of the Committee is concerned with the problems of every home in the land, with the problems which are at the heart of family life and with matters which are vital to everyone's material well-being and happiness. Not only that, but the Committee's remit entitles it to make recommendations touching upon the business of every manufacturer, wholesaler and retailer in the country. Confidence is therefore vital, because there are many conflicting views to be resolved, and if the solutions proposed by the Committee are to earn general acceptance it must be recognised that they are honest conclusions unswayed by political influence or by dogma of any kind. Anyone who approached such a matter lightly or with thought of political advantage would rightly deserve and receive the country's scorn and contempt. I thought that the hon. Member for Hillsborough was a little below his usual form when he said that it was a matter of party politics. We in the Tory Party have an honourable record concerning the protection of the consumer, and I can assure the hon. Gentleman that our sincerity is as great as his.
§ Mr. Darling
I did not say that. I said that it was electoral window dressing, which is an entirely different thing.
§ Mr. Rodgers
I can say quite categorically at the outset that nothing has been further from the minds of my right hon. Friend and myself in setting up the Committee.
I think that we must first try to understand the task that confronts the Committee. It is not the kind of Committee whose main function is merely to elicit facts and views. There are committees which are set up whose job it is to collect all available evidence on a particular subject, to tabulate it and to clearly state what are the facts of the problem. On such committees experts on the subject are appointed and that is the quickest way of getting the job concluded.
The facts and views which have been expressed so freely in recent years on this subject could reasonably enough be put together without going to the trouble of setting up a committee. The problem is rather this: that the same set of facts in this field produce widely differing views about the appropriate solution—views 71 which I think we must all recognise are for the most part honestly and passionately held by those who propound them.
There are those, for example, who consider that there are not enough standards for consumer goods. I think the hon. Lady the Member for Coventry, South (Miss Burton) thinks that something should be done to circumvent the difficulties or objections which sometimes prevent there being more. This school of thought—if I may call it that—wants more regulations. But there is another side which says just as sincerely that it is sometimes impossible to evolve such standards and make them the foundation of consumer buying without at the same time stultifying technical progress.
Again, some would like to see adherence to minimum standards made compulsory; there are others who feel that it would be a thoroughly bad thing if the man who wanted a cheap pair of sandals in which to knock about on the beach and to throw them away at the end of his holiday were unable to get them because they did not conform to a minimum standard.
Some see a need for an independent national consumers' body; others believe that, in practice, this could achieve far less than its proponents suggest. Should there be such a body? Should there be several? Should the Government support the bodies already operating in this field? That, I think, was the suggestion of my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, West (Mrs. McLaughlin). These are the kind of questions that the Committee will seek to answer.
Again, it is sometimes suggested—I think the hon. Member for Erith and Crayford did so—that the terms and conditions of hire-purchase contracts are unduly onerous; others will say that the risks of the trade are such that on any more generous terms the finance companies would not find it worth their while to stay in business and that hire-purchase facilities would simply disappear, to the detriment of the consumer.
I have made it perfectly clear in the House before that in my view the free play of competition is fundamentally the best protection that the housewife can have, but I have no intention this afternoon 72 of taking one side or the other on these or the many other contentious issues which will come before the Committee.
We have put the problem before the Committee on consumer protection and we are leaving it to produce an independent answer. Now I come to the question of the choice of members of the Committee. What I want to point out, however, is that the Committee's job is basically to deal with some very contentious issues—and we all agree that they are contentious—and to come up with an impartial and unbiassed judgment. It was with that in mind that my hon. Friend and I aproached the problem of appointing the members. We approached it very carefully and seriously.
I need hardly remind the hon. Member for Coventry, South and some of her colleagues that there were a number of occasions on which they expressed their displeasure that we were unable to announce quickly the names of the members of the Committee, but had we tried to give hasty answers we should not have got so good a Committee as we have now.
As I said earlier, we regard this as a vital matter, and we were more concerned to try to get the right solution. We decided first of all that the Committee should be a relatively small one, a manageable one of workable proportions. It would have been much easier to let it grow until it included someone from every interest, but we resisted that temptation so that the Committee should have a fair chance to do a good job with all reasonable speed.
Having settled that point, there were, as we have said before, two broad alternatives open to us. We could have appointed members as the representatives or nominees of particular interests. The more we looked at that idea the less we likel it. The nominee tends, in practice, to have very little independence of action and a committee with nominees represening this, that and the other strongly-held view or vested interest is most likely to produce a series of fragmentary reports which really get no one anywhere. Moreover if we had sought to appoint the nominees of a particular interest, we could not reasonably have included one and excluded another, and 73 any hope of keeping the Committee within manageable size would have disappeared.
But, as we saw it, it was neither necessary nor appropriate that the various interests involved should be directly represented on the Committee. We recognise that all these interests have a great deal of experience and some very definite and positive views as to what might be done. But those are not forgotten or overlooked merely because their spokesmen are not on the Committee. It can all be put in at the appropriate time in evidence. What we really need is a jury of good common sense people able to consider the evidence laid before them, uninhibited by external pressures or preconceived notions.
In practice, it is impossible to find people having no connection at all with the subjects to be discussed by the Committee, for the simple reason that the subjects affect everyone.
§ Mr. Frank Beswick (Uxbridge)
I think that inadvertently the hon. Gentleman is casting a slur upon those who might have some connection with the Co-operative organisations. He has said that the members of the Committee should be unimpeded by external pressures. Does he mean to imply that anyone coming from a Co-operative organisation would be more likely to be affected by external pressures than the directors of other concerns who are on the Committee?
§ Mr. Rodgers
Not at all. I should like to answer the question a little later when I come to the specific question why there are no Co-operative Wholesale Society representatives.
My right hon. Friend and I made every effort to keep as close as we could to this basic principle; and, for all that hon. Members opposite have said this afternoon, we still feel that we have made a pretty good job of it. We have appointed three housewives, one from London, one from a country town and one from Wales, all of them with considerable experience of running a home, all having brought up a family, with considerable experience of voluntary public work calculated to give them a real understanding of other people's problems. They will be supported by Miss Richmond, who enjoys the threefold advantage of being a woman, a Scot 74 and a trade unionist of considerable experience. While the ladies may appear to be outnumbered, as there are only four on the Committee, I am sure they will be a quartet fully capable of keeping their end up.
With them there will be men of sound general judgment and wide experience, as my right hon. Friend pointed out at Question Time last week. The representatives on this Committee cover manufacturing, retailing, market research, local government and administration and the practice of the law, particularly branches affecting the supply of goods and services, all of these under the leadership of a Chairman whose independence and openness of mind is beyond question.
I realise frankly that there are different methods of approaching the problem—
§ Mr. Jay
If the Parliamentary Secretary is not going to say any more about the constitution of the Committee, may I ask him this? Does he realise that he could have appointed one of two sorts of committee—first, one consisting of members entirely independent of any of the trades or businesses concerned, and they would have heard evidence; secondly, one consisting of people drawn from industry, and they could have shown a reasonable balance between different forms of organisation. But how can it possibly be right to select several members from private retail firms and one retail trade association, leaving out the Co-operative movement entirely? That is the question which the hon. Gentleman has not answered.
§ Mr. Beswick
It is important that the Parliamentary Secretary should not appear quite so ignorant of the Cooperative movement. It is not the fact that the Co-operative movement consists only of the Co-operative Wholesale Society. No one has mentioned the Cooperative Wholesale Society. We have mentioned 13 million people banded together in these and other organisations in the country. There is not one member of any of these organisations on this Committee.
§ Mr. Rodgers
I appreciate that I should not have said the Co-operative 75 Wholesale Society. I was using that phrase wrongly. I was using it to include the retail as well as the manufacturing sides. Perhaps I may take the practical considerations with which the Committee will have to deal, and then state why we think it is better not to have a Co-operative representative on the Committee.
Hon. Members opposite may say that they are in favour of more regulation, inspection and control than we have today. My hon. Friends prefer to rely more on the play of the market and the effect of competition to produce efficiency.
§ Mr. Rodgers
If I may be allowed to finish my argument, I will be able to answer the hon. Gentleman. Possibly there is a point at which these two views can yield to each other. If so, one of the things that the Committee may have to decide will be where that point lies. Even if I accept the principle of regulation in some particular field, it is not necessary to accept it generally. I do not believe that we can, for example, make razor blades sharp by Act of Parliament. Why, enforcement would involve so vast an army of testers and inspectors that by the time the customer had paid for their services, as he would have to do whether as a taxpayer or a ratepayer, it would cost more than the consumer previously lost through occasionally buying one packet of blunt razor blades.
In saying this I am not trying to influence the Committee's thinking, but I am trying to put before the House in a concrete way the aspects of the problem and the solutions which the Committee will be asked to consider. It will be, I suggest, for the Committee to advise where the line between regulation and competition can be drawn. I believe that they can best be helped to come to sound conclusions if those who hold strong views on either side are in a position to put their views as witnesses both in writing and orally rather than serving on the Committee.
There has been reference to the appointment of Co-operative representatives on various other bodies such as the Consumers' Committee set up under the 76 Agricultural Marketing Act, 1958, and the Hodgson Committee on Weights and Measures in 1948. There is, I think, a clear distinction of function between the Departmental Committee which my right hon. Friend has appointed and the Consumers' Committee set up under the Agricultural Marketing Act, 1958. The Consumers' Committee is a standing committeeto represent the interests of consumers of all the products the marketing of which is for the time being regulated by schemes approved by the Minister.That is in Section 19 (2) (b) of the Agricultural Marketing Act, 1958.
§ Mr. Rodgers
This Consumers' Committee is, therefore, a body concerned with representing a particular viewpoint and not with balancing opposing considerations. My right hon. Friend, however, has appointed a Committee precisely to perform this latter function of balancing opposing, and very violently opposing, views on this subject of how to protect the consumer. I repeat, therefore, that I am confident that the Cooperative movement can best serve the interests of its many millions of members and of consumers generally by giving evidence to the Committee, and that they can feel themselves all the freer because they express their views from outside. Reynolds News, a Cooperative newspaper, of which I have a copy here, suggested that the omission of a representative was either spite or a piece of stupidity. It is neither. It is certainly not spite. I should certainly like to remove any feeling that we are spiteful to the Co-operative wholesale movement. There are many Board of Trade committees and only the other day we appointed a representative to deal with the Census of Distribution. I think that hon. Members can absolve us at the Board of Trade from having any desire to discriminate against the Cooperative movement.
§ Mr. Rodgers
No. As I develop my argument the hon. Gentleman will see that the very opposite applies. I will look at the OFFICIAL REPORT carefully and see whether my words bear the interpretation which the hon. Gentleman has placed upon them.
May I ask hon. Members opposite to consider what would be the effect of picking a Committee whose members regarded themselves as the nominees of particular interests? Would we not be running a grave risk of the Committee turning its terms of reference into a battleground? The issues before the Committee are serious—we are all agreed on that—and differing views can legitimately be held on them. Is it helpful to 55 million people in this country to have these issues considered in a way that is likely to deepen and widen the cleavage between the opposite viewpoints? Will not the interests of the consumer—I put this point seriously—be better served by a body of persons whose approach to the problems is, so far as possible, objective and impartial and who can be expected to test, in the light of widely varied types of experience, the differing views that will be placed before them? We have had to leave off many experienced and well-informed people from all kinds of organisations. There are many people whose names came before us and whom we would like to have had on the Committee for their own personal point of view. We had to leave them off because they were connected with various interests.
§ Mr. Beswick
If the omission of a Cooperative representative was neither spite nor stupidity, was it a coincidence that of all these ladies, not one came from a working-class background?
§ Mr. Rodgers
It is not for me to say which lady came from a working-class background. I am very sorry indeed if, in seeking what we honestly consider to have been the best solution, we should have given offence to the great Co-operative movement or to anyone else. I should be still more sorry if I thought that the undoubted advice and experience of all these people were going to be denied to the Committee, but I am quite sure that it will be given and will receive the most careful and unprejudiced attention of the Committee when the time comes.
78 I should like to say a word or two about the terms of reference and the letter of invitation, to which the hon. Lady the Member for Coventry, South referred. There have been suggestions that in some way or another the terms of reference of the Committee have been watered down from the original proposal. I can assure the hon. Member for Erith and Crayford that this is definitely not the case. The terms of reference which the President announced on 4th June were included in precisely that form both in the letters of invitation which were sent to members and in the formal minutes appointing them which are now being sent out. We have nothing to hide on this. The hon. Lady the Member for Coventry, South will be pleased to know that. I have today placed in the Library a copy of the text of the standard letter of invitation which was sent out.
§ Mr. Rodgers
Hon. Members who care to consult this will see that, in order to give those who were being approached a rough idea of the sort of thing they would be taking on, the letter of invitation referred to a number of topics which might well be raised. It also made it equally clear that it would be for the Committee, within the limits imposed by its terms of reference, to decide on the scope and pattern of its inquiry. We also said in the letter that, as we saw it, the function of the proposed Committee would be to decide how far the old-established balance between buyer and seller had been disturbed and to decide whether something might appropriately be done to restore it—in broad terms by ensuring that the consumer is better informed and /or by ensuring that he has fair redress for legitimate complaints. I do not think that any member of the Committee reading his letter of invitation could possibly have interpreted it as a limitation on the formal terms of reference. These, if I may remind the House, include a directionto consider and report what changes if any in the law and what other measures, if any, are desirable for the further protection of the consuming public.The Committee is to hold its first meeting on Friday—
§ Mr. Jay
The Parliamentary Secretary is leaving the terms of reference. Will he clear up the ambiguity which has been 79 pointed out to him? The main doubt is whether the wordslegislation relating to merchandise marks and certification trade marksqualify the later wordschanges … in the law and what other measures… are".We hope that they do not qualify them.
§ Mr. Rodgers
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for drawing my attention to this and I apologise for not having mentioned the point. I should have said that the Committee's attention has been drawn specifically to the Merchandise Marks Acts, since this is legislation with which the Board of Trade has been primarily concerned in respect of consumer protection. The Committee, however, is not debarred by its terms of reference from considering other parts of the law relevant to the safeguards available to shoppers. I think that that answers the point.
§ Mr. Jay
It does not wholly meet the point, because of the double ambiguity. This is important. Do the wordswhat other measures, if any, are desirable for the further protection of the consuming publicstand entirely unqualified by the words at the beginning of the terms of reference about the merchandise marks and the certification trade marks?
§ Mr. Rodgers
They are related to but are not dependent on those words. They are much wider than the Merchandise Marks Acts and the certification marks but they would not run across the whole field. One hon. Member suggested that the Committee could include transport and heaven knows what as matters relevant to consumer protection, but it is intended to refer to what is within the purview of the Board of Trade.
§ Mr. Rodgers
Certainly they are not. but they are limited to the Board of Trade's function in this field and do not include the Ministry of Transport or other Ministries.
The Committee is to hold its first meeting on Friday of this week, a date 80 chosen by the Chairman as the best compromise between an early date and the unavoidable prior commitments of the members. The Committee has a completely free hand, and we have not merely been repeating a polite formula when my right hon. Friend and I have told the House on earlier occasions that it would be for the Committee to decide what to do and how to do it.
It is difficult for me to give the House any valid information about the plans of a Committee which has not yet met to decide any plans. I imagine that its first meeting will inevitably be very much a preliminary look at the task and that it may take a little longer for the Committee to arrive at a definite plan of campaign and to decide how, when and on what topics evidence may usefully be invited. I know that the Committee is well aware of our desire that its work should be pressed forward as rapidly as is consistent with a good job and that the Chairman is fully aware of the need for providing as much information as possible about the Committee's plans and progress and, in particular, as to this matter of inviting evidence from outside bodies and individuals.
It is, however, for the Committee to decide how its work can best be done and to decide whether all or part of its proceedings should be in public and whether all or part of the evidence submitted to it should be published and, if so, when. I would certainly not be prepared to give the Committee any directions as to this. We must leave the Committee to decide how best to tackle its job and to remember that its job is not merely to come up with answers but to do so in a way which I hope will command general confidence. My right hon. Friend and I have no doubt at all that the Committee will do so.
The Committee will not, of course, attempt to redress individual grievances reported to it. It is not designed for that purpose, its terms of reference do not cover such activities and the Committee would hopelessly set back the prospects of getting a relatively early report on th main general issues.
To answer a specific question by the hon. Member for Erith and Crayford, while the Committee is sitting the Board 81 of Trade will continue its work of helping where it can to encourage voluntary action to protect the consumer. This includes, for example, support of the B.S.I. in consumer protection work. Since much of the work of the Committee, however, will be concerned with the law, the Government would not consider introducing new legislation in these matters until after the Committee has reported.
The Committee will have to take an overall view of its subject, and it will be for the Committee to consider whether its job will be best done by interim pronouncements or reports on particular aspects of its work. I should be happy if we could have the complete report in a few months, but we have to be realistic about this, and if we want a worth-while and early report we have to give the Committee ample chance to do its job adequately.
We have every confidence that we have set up the right kind of Committee, with the right terms of reference, and have appointed to it people who will do a first-rate job, impartially and with all possible dispatch. I therefore hope that all sides of the House will welcome the formation of this Committee and that in their individual and several ways hon. Members will do what they can to see that evidence is submitted to the Committee in order that it can reach a balanced judgment on a subject which is dear to all of us—the protection of the consumer in a very difficult scientific world.
§ Mr. Lawson
On a point of order. I wish to raise a very urgent matter affecting many thousands of people in Scotland concerning consumer protection. Since this first debate is finishing, am I to take it that there will be no opportunity for me to raise this question, which affects so many thousands of people?
§ Mr. Deputy-Speaker
I understand that an arrangement was reached that we should discuss consumer protection for the first couple of hours and then discuss defence, industrial health and the Hola Report.